Butter and margarine review

We check out over 90 spreads and dairy blends, and pick the healthier options.
 
Learn more
 
 
 
 
 
  • Updated:1 Jan 2005
 

01 .Introduction

Butter-and-margerine-iStock

Margarine’s now a ‘spread’ and butter can come from the fridge soft enough to spread on your toast. But when you’re faced with so many different spreads in the supermarket dairy cabinet it’s hard to know which is the healthiest.

In brief

  • For the healthiest choice, look for a spread that’s low in saturated and trans fats. We found plenty to choose from — see Healthy choices.
  • Olive oil spreads contain a lot less actual olive oil than you might think. There are plenty of cheaper spreads that are healthier.
  • Dairy blends (a mix of butter and vegetable oil) can be much easier to spread straight from the fridge than plain butter. But even the best of them have more saturated fat than most of the other spreads.

What happened to margarine?

Only 10 of the spreads we found still have ‘margarine’ in their name. Old fashioned marge has almost disappeared from the supermarkets. Why?

It’s not just a desire to seem trendy. The Food Standards Code defines ‘margarine’ as a spread containing at least 80% fat. As most spreads now have less fat than this, they can’t be called ‘margarine’ and still comply with the labelling regulations (unless they’re called ‘margarine spreads’).

Please note: this information was current as of January 2005 but is still a useful guide today.


 
 

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02.Healthy choices - what to buy

 

Basic spreads

Can't believe it's not butter

Price per 100g = $0.58
Saturated Fat = 13 % Trans Fat = 0%
Monounsaturated Fat = 40% Polyunsaturated Fat = 17%
Non-fat contents = 30%

IGA Way of Life Lite Table Spread

Price per 100g = $0.31
Saturated Fat = 9 % Trans Fat = 4%
Monounsaturated Fat = 19% Polyunsaturated Fat = 11%
Non-fat contents = 67%

Meadowlea Lite

Price per 100g = $0.40
Saturated Fat = 13 % Trans Fat = 0%
Monounsaturated Fat = 24% Polyunsaturated Fat = 12%
Non-fat contents = 51%

Canola spreads

Weight Watchers Canola Spread

Price per 100g = $0.55
Saturated Fat = 13 % Trans Fat = 0%
Monounsaturated Fat = 24% Polyunsaturated Fat = 12%
Non-fat contents = 51%

Home brand Canola Lite

Price per 100g = $0.19
Saturated Fat = 14 % Trans Fat = 1%
Monounsaturated Fat = 25% Polyunsaturated Fat = 11%
Non-fat contents = 49%

Olive oil spreads

Bertolli Light

Price per 100g = $0.58
Saturated Fat = 14 % Trans Fat = 0%
Monounsaturated Fat = 33% Polyunsaturated Fat = 8%
Non-fat contents = 45%

Polyunsaturated spreads

Melrose Omega 3 Care

Price per 100g = $1.17
Saturated Fat = 6 % Trans Fat = 0%
Monounsaturated Fat = 39% Polyunsaturated Fat = 26%
Non-fat contents = 29%

Becel Diet Polyunsaturated Reduced Fat Spread

Price per 100g = $0.58
Saturated Fat = 9 % Trans Fat = 0%
Monounsaturated Fat = 18% Polyunsaturated Fat = 19%
Non-fat contents = 54%

Cholesterol-lowering spreads

Flora Pro-activ Light

Price per 100g = $1.70
Saturated Fat = 8 % Trans Fat = 0%
Monounsaturated Fat = 14% Polyunsaturated Fat = 18%
Non-fat contents = 60%

Results table

For more information download the full article, including the results table.

What makes a healthy spread?

Expert opinion has shifted towards the view that the type of fat we eat matters even more than the quantity. Eating foods rich in saturated and trans fats increases your risk of heart disease, while replacing saturated with mono- and polyunsaturated fats lowers the risk.

We all need some fat in our diet.

Fats provide essential fatty acids that our bodies can’t manufacture. They also supply the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, and fat-soluble antioxidants like beta-carotene. Fat also makes our food tastier and more palatable, adding to the enjoyment of eating.

Fat does, though, contribute more than twice the kilojoules as the same weight of protein or carbohydrate, so you’ve still got to watch how much you eat.

More about trans fats

Trans fats are created by a process called hydrogenation, used to convert liquid oils into the solid fat needed to get the right consistency in a spread.

Trans fats are in fact mostly monounsaturated, but their molecules have a different shape from the naturally occurring monounsaturated fats that are abundant in canola, olive and peanut oil. Your body sees a molecule of trans fat as a saturated fat and treats it the same way.

Australian spreads now have a lot less trans fat than in the past, largely because advances in food technology have made it possible for manufacturers to produce spreads without depending so much on hydrogenation.

Danish pastry

Denmark is the first country in the world to have banned the use of hydrogenated fat. Since the beginning of last year it’s been illegal to sell products in which trans fat is more than 2% of the total fat.

So nearly half the Aussie spreads in our Table would be banned in Denmark.

Stop it or you’ll go blind!

You may have seen some alarming reports in the media that the vegetable oils in spreads are causing blindness (macular degeneration) and that the only safe fats to eat are butter or olive oil.

There’s little evidence to support these claims. They’re based on only a few small studies from the US. Moreover, scientific opinion is by no means unanimous, as one of the studies found no relationship between any type of fat intake and macular degeneration, and the most recent of them reported that macular degeneration was related to total fat intake, including animal fats. So the suggestion that butter’s a preferable fat choice is inconsistent with the evidence as well as poor health advice for other reasons.

04.Choosing a spread

 

We’ve ranked the spreads (Table) by their percentage of saturated plus trans fats — and to make them easier to compare, we’ve divided the spreads into the following categories:

  • Basic spreads: These are the spreads that make no special claims or don’t fit into one of the other categories. They’re usually made from a blend of vegetable oils.
  • Canola spreads: Canola oil is rich in monounsaturates and also has heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. They’re about the same price as the basic spreads, averaging 30–35 cents per 100 g. And don’t be put off by the rumours circulating on the internet that canola oil is toxic — there’s no truth in them.
  • Olive oil spreads: Olive oil has acquired a certain mystique as a key ingredient of the heart-healthy ‘Mediterranean diet’, but in fact it’s only one of a number of healthy oils. It’s rich in monounsaturates, but so is canola. And although you pay a premium for most of these spreads (their average price is 67 cents per 100 g), you don’t get as much olive oil in them as you might think. OLIVE GROVE Classic Spread (‘with cholesterol free olive oil’, according to the label) has the most with 23%, followed by the much cheaper COLES FARMLAND Olive Spread with 22%.
  • Polyunsaturated spreads: These contain sunflower, flaxseed or soybean oils that are rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fats. MELROSE Omega 3 Care has the least saturated and trans fats of all the spreads in this test (just 6%), but also has above average total fat and is quite expensive. Most other polyunsaturated spreads cost around 50 cents per 100 g.

There are no strong health reasons for choosing one of these types over another. As far as your heart’s concerned, the overriding consideration is to avoid saturated and trans fats. But there’s one more type of spread that claims to have a particular health function:

  • Cholesterol-lowering spreads: These claim to contain ‘natural plant sterols’ that lower cholesterol absorption — and the scientific evidence is quite strong that plant sterols work. They really can lower the level of harmful LDL cholesterol in your blood by more than 10%. But you’d need to eat at least 25 g of the spread each day to get that level of benefit — just smearing the occasional slice of toast with one of these spreads won’t make much difference. FLORA Pro-activ Light gives you the most plant sterols for the least saturated and trans fats.

    Unfortunately plant sterols also lower the absorption of beta-carotene, which forms vitamin A in the body. So if you eat these products a lot, it’s a good idea to include an additional daily serve of yellow or orange vegetables and fruits.

    And these products aren’t a substitute for cholesterol-lowering medication. If in doubt, get medical advice.

For full comparative information for each brand about:

  • fat composition,
  • kilojoules and
  • salt content,

see Table.

And for a quick overview of the star performers go to Healthy choices.

Can I cook with low-fat spreads?

Probably not. Check the total fat content — if it’s less than about 60% the spread’s likely to be unsuitable for making cakes, scones or pastry. It’s also likely to splatter too much if you try to fry with it.

For baking you can use one of the spreads that has more fat overall but is still low in saturated and trans fats (such as I CAN’T BELIEVE IT’S NOT BUTTER). And for frying, simply use a small quantity of vegetable oil.

If you really like the flavour of butter, dairy blends might seem a good compromise. They’re made from butter blended with vegetable oils, or from butterfat processed to remove some of the saturated fat. They have less saturated fat than traditional butter, with the added bonus that they come out of the fridge easier to spread.

Unfortunately even those with the least saturated fat (WESTERN STAR Spreadable Light, DEVONDALE Light and DEVONDALE Light with Calcium) still have more of it than over three quarters of the spreads based on vegetable oil (Table).

But our spreadability test confirmed they’re definitely easier to spread than butter at fridge temperature (around 4°C), though there were some big differences between brands:

  • WESTERN STAR Supersoft and WESTERN STAR Premium Cultured Butter rated highest for spreadability and were both very easy to spread on fresh white bread.
  • Whether they still have enough of the mouthfeel of butter is something you’ll have to check for yourself.
  • While blends with the lowest spreadability score are still hard to spread on bread without ripping it apart, they’re easier than butter and dead-easy to spread on hot toast.